The French philosopher Émile Durkheim, known by some as the “father of sociology,” introduced the idea to the world that people’s norms, beliefs and values make up a shared way of understanding and behaving and that that collective consciousness binds individuals together to create social integration.
Durkheim died in 1917, ironically the same year the Russian Revolution that ultimately led to the forming of the Soviet Union began. More than 100 years later, George Washington University Law student Sonia Schmidt finds herself at that intersection.
A third-generation Ukrainian American whose maternal great grandmother left Ukraine in 1941 to escape the threat of Nazi Germany to the West and the vice grip of the Soviet Union to the East, Schmidt has long felt a sense of duty to preserve her and her family’s Ukrainian heritage.
“When I was a kid, I remember my mom told me that when she was in college, she would call the language learning software company Rosetta Stone asking to create a Ukrainian language program because it didn’t exist, and she said they refused to make it because it was a quote-unquote dying language,” Schmidt said. For reference, Ukraine has for centuries been subjected to “Russification” policies encouraging non-Russians to adopt the Russian language and culture. That was especially prevalent during the Soviet Union, where Ukrainian schools were eventually required to teach Russian language classes beginning in first grade.
“Since childhood, it’s been engrained in me that Ukrainian culture could be gone at any moment, so that 100% impacted me,” Schmidt said.
Her big idea? To channel her inner Durkheim and build a platform that would serve as a collective memory book where loved ones’ legacies could be celebrated during their life and preserved beyond their death.
Schmidt came to study law at GW in part because of the prestigious program but also because she thought the university could provide resources and opportunities for other programming to see this vision through. Even though she was new to the startup scene, she thought GW could help her manifest her idea into a real company.
And then, during her first year on campus, her final boost of inspiration tragically hit. On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia began its full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.
“It was really like ‘if not now, when?’” Schmidt said. “You think of little things like recipes or big things like a collective memory of what life was like under the Soviet Union. You don’t want that history gone.”
Schmidt (along with co-founder Devan Geib) utilized the guidance of GW’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and got to work founding Immorta, a social media platform where users can upload, store and share multiple types of media such as photos, videos, audio recordings, stories, recipes and more.
Hoping to launch sometime in early 2024, Immorta will offer templates that users can customize based on the media—there will be a digitization feature to handle all kinds of files—they wish to upload. There will be a free option, and users who want to upload more memories with more customization options can upgrade to a subscription-based service. It differs from traditional social media in that it is less about updating feeds and more about creating a digital space that taps into nostalgia content.
“Traditional social media is always going to encourage more—more, so this is a way to romanticize the moments we’ve already had,” Schmidt said.
At the 2023 New Venture Competition, Immorta won the Consumer Goods and Service Track as well as the Best Storytelling prize—an extra feather in the cap for a law student who prides herself on public speaking and convincing people that what she’s pitching is a good idea.
Schmidt is in interested in pursuing criminal law as she’s especially passionate about hearing people who need help and telling their stories. “As hokey as it sounds, I believe everyone has a story worth telling,” she said.
That mindset is why she thinks there’s such a need for Immorta. One of her main takeaways through all of this is how conflict could be remedied by conversing with others, hearing and sharing each other’s stories and understanding and valuing other cultures.
“I thought not only would this be a beneficial way for me to store my family’s memories, but I also think it would genuinely help humanity have a collective repository memory so we don’t forget all the lessons that we’ve learned,” Schmidt said.
Somewhere, Durkheim is smiling.